Wherein we are introduced to the fourth of Dickens’ serial novels, The Old Curiosity Shop (the fifth and sixth reads of our Dickens Chronological Reading Club 2022-24), and the accompanying periodical Master Humphrey’s Clock; with a glance at the context of Dickens’ life at the time–with other considerations. Finally, we have an overview of the whole of the reading schedule from July 19 through August 22; with a look ahead to the coming week.
“A novel which reads like a cross between The Pilgrim’s Progress and Tales of the Genii, where the little heroine mixes with dwarves and giants, where the child-like are parodied by the childish, where there are dead children and waxworks, where the impulse towards Gothic historicity is continually displaced by the distorted figures of contemporary nightmare…”— Peter Ackroyd, Dickens
Friends, this is a terribly exciting moment in our Dickens reading for two reasons. First, because today we embark on the delightful but oft-neglected Master Humphrey’s Clock, a weekly periodical that shows Dickens at his strangest and most relaxed. Second, because next week we begin The Old Curiosity Shop, one of my personal favorite Dickens novels, a dreamy picaresque featuring innocent girls, malevolent dwarves, kindly schoolmasters, traveling puppeteers, haunted waxworks, and what G. K. Chesterton called the one really great romance in all of Dickens.
For quick links, by topic:
- General Mems
- Dickens’s Life in 1840-41 and the Origins of The Old Curiosity Shop
- Thematic Considerations
- Additional References
- Reading Schedule
- A Look-ahead to Master Humphrey’s Clock
- Works Cited
If you’re counting, today is day 197 (and week 29) in our #DickensClub! It will be Week One of Master Humphrey’s Clock and The Old Curiosity Shop, our fifth and sixth reads of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the first week’s chapters, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us. Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship for retweeting these and for keeping us all in sync, and to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such a marvelous online resource for us.
And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
Dickens’s Life in 1840-41 and the Origins of The Old Curiosity Shop
At twenty-eight years old, Charles Dickens was the most famous man in England. In the past four years he had written The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and now Nicholas Nickleby to great acclaim. His friend, the aging writer Thomas Carlyle, describes him during this period: “clear blue intelligent eyes, eyebrows that he arches amazingly, large protrusive rather loose mouth … a quiet shrewd-looking little fellow, who seems to guess pretty well what he is, and what others are.” A portrait of him undertaken in 1839 by Daniel Maclise echoes the sentiment, revealing a young man of remarkable confidence and self-assurance.
Yet he was also tired. As he neared the end of Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens wanted a great many things. He wanted out from under the thumb of Bentley’s Miscellany, having recently quarreled with Richard Bentley. He wanted a break, however brief, from the demands of writing novels. Fame was not guaranteed to last, and he wanted a steady means of income in the event that the public lost interest in his storytelling.
Thus the idea for Master Humphrey’s Clock was born. Dickens would start his own weekly periodical, a periodical of stories, weird sketches, funny musings, wherever his fancy led him at a given moment. He would write most of it himself, including the fan mail from fictitious personages, but would allow space for the contributions of fellow authors.
Once the idea seized hold of Dickens, it proved irresistible. He became so consumed with the planning that he neglected some of the planning for the later chapters of Nicholas Nickleby. If the periodical succeeded, he told a friend, it could bring him up to 10,000 pounds a year—a considerable sum in the 1840s. “The idea of a weekly periodical for which he would receive a regular income without having to extend his energies once more on a long novel clearly appealed to him,” notes Peter Ackroyd, “together with the fact that a periodical under his sole guidance and authority would confirm that link with his audience for which he was always searching and which might have been in danger if he had simply embarked upon another monthly series. He had a good idea of his audience and he knew that, to keep it, surprise and novelty were potent instruments.”
Alas, Master Humphrey’s Clock, while thoroughly charming in every way, did not fare as well as he had hoped. The British reading public proved surprisingly indifferent to a periodical largely written from the perspective of a wistful old man with mobility issues who pulls short stories out of a clock. Even the decision to revive Mr. Pickwick and the Wellers in later issues did not significantly increase sales, which had plateaued at around 50,000 a week. Again Dickens would need to do something novel and dramatic to recover the flagging attentions of his audience—and luckily, he had just the thing.
On a four-day trip to bath with John Forster to visit the poet Walter Savage Landor, Dickens encountered an abusive dwarf named Prior “who let donkeys on hire,” and who may have been the inspiration for Daniel Quilp. It was here, too, that he first conceived the idea of a short story about a lost, innocent girl wandering forlornly through the streets of London and rescued by Master Humphrey. As Michael Slater writes, “Once again, the image, hugely powerful and resonant for him, of a beautiful, vulnerable child wandering in the dark city seized his imagination as it had done in the case of Oliver.” Dickens had not intended this to be any more than a short story told by the old man—hence why the first three chapters of the novel are narrated by Master Humphrey, who then disappears from the book entirely—but the idea grew in his mind until it possessed him. Thus Dickens, who had set out in the new periodical to tell hundreds of stories, became gripped once more with the story of one solitary child. Chesterton felt there was something poetical in this: “The truth is not so much that eternity is full of souls as that one soul can fill eternity.”
A Note on the Illustrations:
The magical writer-illustrator collaboration between Dickens and “Phiz” (Hablot K. Browne) continues with Master Humphrey’s Clock and The Old Curiosity Shop. However, illustrations on the latter become something of a team effort with the inclusion of fourteen woodcuts by George Cattermole—adding an additional Gothic flair particularly to the sequences near the kindly schoolmaster’s old church—and one contribution apiece from Daniel Maclise and Samuel Williams. Phiz, however, remained the primary illustrator at sixty-one woodcuts, particularly for action or character-caricature visuals; Cattermole’s talents were utilized for the architectural and sentimental, according to Victorian Web.
Dickens, of course, had his say as the presiding spirit.
The steel-engraving method which we’ve become accustomed to from Phiz certainly had a greater capacity to show detail; woodcuts, on the other hand, could be inserted right alongside the text.
“Wood engraving was a mechanical process in which the drawing was transferred to a wood block using transfer paper. The engraver would then cut away the wood in areas where there were no lines, leaving the drawing in high relief. Since the lines to be printed were raised, like the type, the illustration could be inserted into the page along with the text. Wood engraving was usually done by a craftsman other than the original illustrator…”https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/charles-dickens-illustrations.html#illustration-methods
In Dickens and Phiz, Michael Steig argues that the illustrations in The Old Curiosity Shop, as in Barnaby Rudge, “are more truly integral parts of the text than any of the other illustrations of Dickens’ novels” (Steig 51). This is in large part due to the weekly rather than monthly installments; there are simply more illustrations for an equivalent amount of text—by two or three times (Steig 52).
Below, you can see samples of the four different illustrators:
Left to right: Phiz; Cattermole; Maclise; Williams
The World as Fairy-Tale
“More and more, he must, consciously or unconsciously, have come to realise that the grand unifying theme of the story was the creative imagination itself, the telling of stories. The man in chapter 44 who tends the furnace reads stories in his fire … the Bachelor in chapter 54 loves to indulge in ‘teeming fancies’ with regard to the antiquities in his village church, and Dick Swiveller’s improvisation of fantastic legends and magical transformations of reality is central to the tender comedy of his relationship with the little Marchioness.”— Michael Slater, Charles Dickens
Dickens had a lifelong fascination with fairy-tales, dating back to his reading of the Arabian Nights as a child and the macabre stories that his Cockney nurse, Mary Weller, used to tell him. Those influences came to the fore in the writing of The Old Curiosity Shop, which John Forster wrote had less conscious conception than any of Dickens’s other books. He was writing largely by instinct, and what emerged was something strange, primal, archetypal, drawing on the deep wells of his childhood reading and stories. “The controlling motifs that welled up so spontaneously,” writes Harry Stone, “had the attributes (and often the lineage) of fairy tales, fables, and allegories,” foremost among them the age-old fairy-tale motif of the innocent child wandering through a surreal landscape of giants, monsters and grotesques.
The Nightmare World of Childhood
“Quilp indeed was a perpetual nightmare to the child, who was constantly haunted by a vision of his ugly face and stunted figure. She slept, for their better security, in the room where the wax-work figures were, and she never retired to this place at night but she tortured herself—she could not help it—with imagining a resemblance, in some one or other of their death-like faces, to the dwarf, and this fancy would sometimes so gain upon her that she would almost believe he had removed the figure and stood within the clothes.”— The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapter 29
Harry Stone has argued that the flip side of Dickens’s fascination with fairy-tales is that at times his stories take on the quality of nightmare. Wonder and terror are his animating impulses, and never was that clearer than in The Old Curiosity Shop with its freaks and furnaces and glass-eyed grotesques. One might almost see the book as a Victorian precursor to the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, also a story of children being pursued across an increasingly surreal, Gothic landscape by a demonic figure. There are hints, too, of the Wonderland books that Lewis Carroll would later write.
Good and Evil Binaries and the Allegorical Mode
Much criticism of the novel has centered on its alleged lack of realism, on the one-dimensionality of the central characters who represent opposing binaries of good and evil. Paul B. Davis argues that Dickens wrote the book in the allegorical vein of Pilgrim’s Progress, as Dickens himself only belatedly realized near the story’s completion—hence the passage, which he added to the opening chapter, in which Master Humphrey says Nell “seemed to exist in a kind of allegory.” In Davis’s estimation, Dick Swiveller—by rejecting the binaries embodied by the other characters—redeems the novel from itself. He “synthesizes the polarities of Nell and Quilp to the possibilities of compromise … [his] ability to adapt to changing circumstances enables him to survive and grow,” whereas Nell and Quilp, by refusing to evolve, ensure their own destruction. Harry Stone avers, calling the novel a series of schematic set pieces and abstractions existing more in the realm of the fairy-tale than the psychological novel.
Katie Lumsden at Books N’ Things offers her thoughts on the good and the bad of The Old Curiosity Shop and its troubling portrayal of dwarves. Anton Lesser, arguably the world’s greatest reader of audio books, has recorded the unabridged book on audio. There are also several television adaptations, among them a 1979 BBC miniseries starring Trevor Peacock and Sebastian Shaw and a 2007 ITV miniseries starring Derek Jacobi and Toby Jones.
|Week One: (OPTIONAL) 19-25 July||Master Humphrey’s Clock||The full introductory frame for The Old Curiosity Shop, for those interested.|
|Week Two: 26 July – 1 Aug||1-18||Here we begin The Old Curiosity Shop. Since these were published in weekly rather than monthly installments, we’ve divided the book up into (approximate) quarters, rather than by installment sections.|
|Week Three: 2-8 Aug||19-37|
|Week Four: 9-15 Aug||38-55|
|Week Five: 16-22 Aug||56-73|
A Look-ahead to Master Humphrey’s Clock
This week we’ll be reading Master Humphrey’s Clock. You can choose to read along or skip ahead to the opening chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop. There are a number of places (including Gutenberg) where they can be downloaded for free.
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1911.
Davis, Paul Benjamin. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. Checkmark Books, 1999.
Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Stone, Harry. Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making. Indiana University Press, 1979.
Stone, Harry. The Night Side of Dickens: Cannibalism, Passion, Necessity. Ohio State University Press, 1994.
Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.